SUVA • Fiji’s former military strongman Prime Minister (PM) Frank Bainimarama (picture) is overwhelming favourite to win an election in the Pacific island nation this week, after transforming himself from coup leader to climate change campaigner.
While many, including rights group Amnesty International, question the nature of Fiji’s democracy under Bainimarama, there is no denying the radical makeover his image has undergone in recent years.
The 64-year-old was denounced as a dictator by Australia and New Zealand after seizing power in a bloodless 2006 coup, resulting in sanctions and Fiji’s suspension from the Commonwealth and the Pacific Islands Forum.
Fast forward 12 years and the naval officer is president of the United Nations’ (UN) Conference of the Parties (COP) 23 efforts to mitigate climate change, with Hollywood action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger hailing him for “kicking some serious butt” on the issue.
Canberra and Wellington now court the one-time pariah in a bid to limit China’s growing influence in the Pacific and his approval rating is running at 68% as Fijians enjoy a period of sustained economic growth.
“He’s done exceptionally well in terms of positioning Fiji internationally and changing perceptions,” developmental historian Robbie Robertson of Melbourne’s Swinburne
University of Technology told AFP. “He refused to kowtow to Australia and New Zealand (after the coup) and when they threatened to cut his fund ing he said ‘we’ll go to China’.
“He’s played the international scene exceedingly well.”
The softening of Bainimarama’s strongman persona has been a key element in his road to international acceptance, with credit partly going to Washington-based public relations firm Qorvis.
Bainimarama hired the spin doctors in 2011 when his government was still facing international isolation and their website boasts of how they prepared him for the COP 23 role.
Rather than the “finger pointing and blame laying” of previous climate talks, it said Bainimarama promoted “a process of open, constructive and respectful dialogues” to promote global action.
Critics said Bainimarama does not extend the same consensus approach to domestic politics, where his FijiFirst party dominates with 32 representatives in the 50-seat parliament.
The largest of the five Opposition parties running against Bainimarama is SODELPA, led by former PM Sitiveni Rabuka — a controversial choice who himself led two coups in the 1980s.
Rabuka has faced corruption charges in the lead up to the election, echoing charges laid against opposition figures ahead of the 2014 poll — a pattern which has raised questions over judicial independence.
Opposition parties have also alleged during the campaign that FijiFirst is using government resources to try to win over voters.
“He has scant regard for other people’s views and he doesn’t like criticism,” Robertson said.
“But he hasn’t blown it, he’s kept it together on the campaign trail.”
A military man to his bootstraps, Bainimarama joined Fiji’s navy as an ordinary seaman aged 21 and earned a commission after two years, receiving training in New Zealand, Australia, the US and Malaysia.
He served two stints as a UN peacekeeper in Sinai on his way to becoming commander of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces in 1999.
At the time of the 2006 coup, he said the army was the only institution disciplined enough to usher in real reform, describing it as a long overdue “clean up”.
It was Fiji’s fourth coup since 1987 and Bainimarama insisted he was determined to stop instability and stamp out corruption.
Supporters said he achieved that and introduced a constitution in 2013 granting equal rights for Indian-Fijians, a sizeable minority brought in to work on sugar plantations during British colonial rule.
They also point to improved living standards through policies such as cheap education and improved spending on rural roads.
He won a landslide victory in the first post-coup election in 2014 and is on track for similar success at Wednesday’s poll, in which Opposition parties appear divided and ineffective.
Amnesty said Bainimarama’s government was yet to fully restore the freedoms which were suspended for several years after the coup.
“Since the last general elections in 2014, the human rights situation in Fiji has remained under attack,” it said, pointing to police brutality, curbs on freedom of assembly and media, as well as persecution of rights advocates.
Robertson said an unexpectedly poor showing in the election could force Bainimarama to relax his grip on power and take heed of critics, but it appeared unlikely.
“I think even some supporters of FijiFirst would like to see a slightly more liberal interpretation of the constitution and for the government to be less autocratic in some of the ways it behaves,” he said.
“But whether they will go that way, I don’t know. I doubt it.” — AFP